Writing Conferences Can Be Joyous or Stressful Depending On How You Approach Them
The first time I went to a writing conference, I was a neophyte. I wore my heart on my sleeve and told nearly anyone who would listen how I was writing a memoir about losing my brother and wanted to get it published.
I probably had that look my dog Bernie gets when he wants a piece of the salmon I’m eating for dinner. Please, please. Please, please be my agent or please give me a book contract.
Thankfully, most people I encountered at that first writing conference (year and place long forgotten) were kind. No one ever told me I looked as desperate as I felt. Most authors, editors, and agents offered advice and collegiality. But I spent the bulk of the conference on edge, anyway, because I wanted to leave with something guaranteed.
Years later, I am a published author, not of that memoir but of a narrative nonfiction book called Faith Ed, Teaching About Religion In An Age Of Intolerance. One chapter stems from my memoir. I credit getting my book published to a contact I made at a writing conference and to a proposal-writing course I took at GrubStreet.
A conference, including the upcoming Muse & the Marketplace in Boston, rarely is a one-step process leading to an agent or a book contract. Sure, some writers get an agent or book deal post-conference, but for most of us, conferences are a critical part of a longer journey.
Over the years, I collected dozens of business cards from agents, editors and authors at conferences. (Nowadays, I also collect Twitter handles.) I got better at playing it cool. Instead of mentioning my memoir first, I focused more on getting to know each agent, editor or author I met. I grew to relish natural conversations about books, writing, the publishing world or current events. More often than not, the editor or agent I met asked what I was working on, anyway. Agents and editors typically attend conferences hoping to find new talent and to share expertise.
I made a key contact at a time when I wasn’t trying to do much other than make inroads in a new job as an education editor at The Boston Globe. I was sitting at a table with an editor from Beacon Press during a lunch at a narrative writing conference. We got to chatting. We had never met. We liked each other. I didn’t know that much about Beacon then and was fascinated to hear about the publisher’s commitment to social justice. The editor seemed to like that I was an education junkie and handed me her card, saying I should get in touch if I was interested in writing an education-related book. I handed her my card and thanked her. I stuck her card in a file at home and wrote on the back where I had met her.
I went to other conferences, met agents, authors, and editors, collected cards, made friends. Maybe five or six years after meeting the Beacon editor, I took a book proposal class at GrubStreet. The agent teaching it mentioned how my book seemed like a good fit for Beacon. I remembered the editor I had met at the conference and sent her an email. I’m fast-forwarding the timeline. The editor and I had a few meetings over a period of time. She offered me a contract. A book was born.
I had not gone into that conference with huge expectations. If I have regrets, it’s that I didn’t keep in contact much with the Beacon editor right after we met. I usually advise writers to be sure to keep in touch with people they meet at conferences. I was lucky. The editor remembered me. Meanwhile, because I have been better at keeping up with people I’ve met at future conferences, I was able to give my editor a list of authors willing to write book blurbs.
Writing conferences can be stressful or joyous. Look at them as opportunities to meet people and to learn. Sure, think lofty when it comes to your goals for your writing. But it’s okay to keep dreams in check during the first moments of a meeting with an agent or editor. Something good can still happen.
For tips on networking at big writing conferences and delivering elevator pitches to agents and editors, sign up for Linda’s upcoming workshop, "Muse and the Marketplace 101: Hone Your Networking Skills Before the Big Conference," on March 10th.
Linda K. Wertheimer, a former Boston Globe education editor, is the author of the narrative nonfiction book, Faith Ed, Teaching about Religion in an Age of Intolerance. Her book, a look at public schools' efforts to teach about the world's religions, grew out of a proposal she wrote in a Grub Street class and was named one of the top two religion books of the year by the Religion News Association in 2016. She worked full-time as a newspaper reporter for nearly 25 years before pursuing her dream to write books. She has published op-eds, personal essays, and long-form nonfiction for many publications, including The New York Times, USA Today, TIME, and The Washington Post. Other awards include a 2014 Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Finalist award for an excerpt from Faith Ed; second place in the national Education Writers Association contest; third in Moment magazine’s memoir contest; and an honorable mention in Tiferet journal’s nonfiction writing contest. She is a mentor-editor with The Op-Ed Project. In summer 2017, she will be a prose writer-in-residence in 2017 at the Chautauqua Writers' Center. For more about Linda and her work, visit lindakwertheimer.com. Follow her on Twitter @lindakwert.See other articles by Linda Wertheimer